The Finals Scramble

June 20, 2010

Thanks to surprising contributions from its second string, the Celtics won two straight at home to take command as this wild series headed back West—an 18th franchise title within Boston's reach

The yelling from the Boston Celtics' locker room down the hallway behind him was an incoherent blend of taunts, laughter and arguments as coach Doc Rivers walked away from the noise and turned left into his TD Garden office. Game 5 of the NBA Finals was less than 28 hours away.

He shut the door behind him and luxuriated in the quiet. "Every day when you walk through our locker room, it is loud," said Rivers from behind his desk after practice last Saturday. "Now they're arguing over this." He waved across the office at his flat screen showing the U.S.-England World Cup match—the same game his players were analyzing next door.

Forward Kevin Garnett was the lone soccer fan in the locker room, which is not to say he was the only Celtic with an opinion; the more he tried to instruct his teammates on the beautiful game, the louder they questioned and ridiculed him and his expertise. "In 2008," said Rivers of the Celtics' last championship team, "when Kevin raised his voice, everybody got quiet. Now it's like, 'Oh, f--- you, Kevin!' They're always fighting or arguing, but it's like a family dinner. The debate starts and guys will not back down. Early on I didn't know what to make of it, and then I saw it's good for our team."

One benefit of speaking their minds was beyond debate following the Celtics' 92--86 win over the Lakers on Sunday, which gave Boston a 3--2 advantage as the teams headed back to Los Angeles for the final two games of this highly contentious Finals. The team that quarrels together was just one win away from its second title in three years (and 18th overall for the franchise). As a No. 4 seed Boston would become the lowest-ranked champion since Hakeem Olajuwon's Rockets triumphed as a sixth seed in 1994--95.

Even more impressive was the list of MVP finalists the Celtics were bumping off this postseason: the Heat's Dwyane Wade (who finished No. 5 in MVP balloting), the Cavaliers' LeBron James (MVP for a second straight year), the Magic's Dwight Howard (No. 4) and now they had cornered the league's most brilliant shot maker, the Lakers' Kobe Bryant (No. 3). Bryant had threatened to make like Jack Bauer and hijack Game 5 with 38 points, including a run of 23 in a row that straddled halftime. How did the Celtics overcome his melodramatics? The same way they'd dispatched each diva of the previous rounds: They outnumbered him.

While the Celtics were receiving double-figure production from a quartet of starters, including 27 points from forward Paul Pierce, their team defense was isolating Bryant and minimizing the impact of All-Star 7-footer Pau Gasol, who managed just 12 points on 12 shots against Garnett and backup Rasheed Wallace. The lingering effects of center Andrew Bynum's meniscus tear in his right knee limited his effectiveness during the Lakers' losses in Games 4 and 5, while placing extra burdens on their short bench. In the end Bryant's virtuosity was self-defeating: During the 14:07 in which he accounted for all 23 of his team's points, squirming up improbable threes, contested runners and corkscrew turnarounds, the Celtics nonetheless opened up a 13-point lead by scoring 35 of their own as Pierce and his teammates moved the ball for relatively simple jumpers and easy baskets in transition. "It was all in the team flow," said Pierce. "We run more of an equal-opportunity offense. That's why throughout the course of the playoffs you see different guys leading us in scoring each game."

Through a record 17 playoff games over the opening three rounds the Celtics never featured the same leading scorer for two games in a row, a triumph of floor balance in this era of The Man. But their altruism did not come naturally: Rivers traced it back to their struggles during the regular season, when injuries and other drawbacks of age shortchanged Boston to a halting 27--27 record over the final four months. Pierce, 32, Garnett, 34, and Ray Allen, 34, were forced to acknowledge they were no longer the singular superstars they'd been as recently as two years ago.

"That's the thing I love about this run, and it's probably why people didn't think we could do it," said Rivers on the eve of Game 5. "Going into [the playoffs] we all knew—at least our staff knew—that our guys were not going to be great every night. They accept that now, where maybe in the middle of the year no one accepted it."

Hubris, though, is the secret ingredient of Boston's unexpected run toward the title—the Celtics are loaded with players who believe deep down they can be stars. Garnett, Pierce and Allen already are penciled in as future Hall of Famers. Rondo believes he is the league's most electrifying point guard. Backup forward Glen (Big Baby) Davis and reserve guards Tony Allen and Nate Robinson also hold high opinions—real or imagined—of their abilities. "Baby has to think that way," says Rivers. "Tony has to think he's the best player on the floor when he plays, and I encourage that. I think it's important for them to think that they can be a star—but while they're not, they have to play the team role."

If the second-stringers hadn't embraced those roles, the Celtics would have gone on vacation weeks ago. As much as Rivers has cautioned reporters to not write off the Celtics because of their age, he has acknowledged the limitations of his older stars. "At the end of the day it's still going to come down to their legs," he confided during the Eastern finals. "And you worry about that every game. Is this the game they're going to be old? You just don't know."

Rivers canceled practice during a February road trip to arrange a series of 20-minute conferences with each player "to tell them where I think they're at, where they need to go, what we need to do," said Rivers, who conducts these meetings at least twice per season.

One player who responded especially well was Wallace, the 35-year-old big man, who was then playing the role of the Celtics' most disappointing player after signing a three-year contract worth $19 million last off-season. Wallace then dedicated himself to working on his shooting and after hitting just 20% of his threes at midseason, he's now shooting 40% from behind the arc in the postseason.

Similar transformations were made by Davis, Robinson and Tony Allen, who joined with Wallace to dominate the fourth quarter and win Game 4 on a night when Boston's starters lacked the energy to do the hardest work themselves.

With 1:02 left in the third quarter the Lakers were leading 62--60 and on the verge of taking a 3--1 series lead when those four Celtics subs were joined on the floor by Ray Allen, who was in the midst of an 0-for-21 slump since being kneed in the thigh by Lakers forward Ron Artest early in Game 3. Over the next nine minutes they outscored the Lakers 21--14 as Davis and Robinson attacked the basket for nine and six points, respectively, culminating in an eventual three-point putback by the 6' 9" Davis that he celebrated with a primal scream as the 5'9" Robinson wrapped both arms around his ogreish neck.

"You were on my back?" asked Davis at the news conference they shared after the 96--89 Boston win.

"You didn't even notice," said Robinson. "We're like Shrek and Donkey. You can't separate us."

Little was expected of Davis this season when he missed two months after breaking his thumb last October while punching a childhood friend during a dispute over Davis's girlfriend. "He came back in phenomenal shape, and that had to do something for his teammates," said Rivers. "Because I guarantee you, they assumed he would come back 20 pounds out of shape and couldn't play." Davis is listed (perhaps disingenuously) at 289 pounds, which has left him just nimble enough this postseason to outrun opponents in transition, and successfully guard everyone from Orlando's three-point-shooting forward Rashard Lewis to the gargantuan Howard—a display of defensive versatility that few big men can manage. Nor is Davis afraid of taking the big shot, as he proved by making a game-winning jumper at the buzzer in the playoffs last year at Orlando.

"There are a lot of people who don't like the stage, or aren't good enough to play on the stage," said Rivers. "Nate and Baby both like the stage. They love the lights."

That love was viewed as Robinson's biggest weakness during his 4½ erratic seasons with the Knicks, where he was best known as a three-time NBA slam dunk champion. He was moved to the Celtics at the February deadline in a five-player trade, but his reputation as a defensive liability kept him off the floor during crucial moments of the playoffs until Game 6 of the Eastern finals, when he filled in for an injured Rondo to score a stunning 13 points in the second quarter of Boston's closeout win.

While Rondo manages a repertoire of 45 offensive sets, the Celtics limit Robinson to three sets when he takes over the point. "You don't want Nate running a lot of stuff," said Rivers. "You want him being aggressive." Similar allowances are made for Tony Allen, who is not a consistent passer or perimeter shooter (he cocks his jump shot like an archer pulling back an arrow) but makes up for it by applying his hyperactive energies to help defend Bryant. "He's been huge, especially in games where Ray Allen and Paul Pierce haven't been effective scoring," says Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw. "Tony Allen's defense keeps the game in order for [Boston] because it doesn't allow us to break away."

If the Celtics finish what they've started by winning the title in Los Angeles, will their celebration sound any different than their arguments? "This group argues more, they fight more and they get along more," said Rivers when asked to compare this team to the champs of '08. You can't ask someone to help you win a championship and then tell him to keep his opinions to himself. Even if he doesn't know a damn thing about soccer.

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"They're always arguing," Rivers says of the Celts. "But it's like a family dinner."

"Nate and Baby both like the stage," says Rivers. "They love the lights."

PHOTOPhotograph by JOHN W. MCDONOUGHBOSTON BOUNCE The diving Davis and Tony Allen were on the ball while Bynum (17) and Gasol were caught flat-footed at the TD Garden. PHOTOPhotograph by JOHN W. MCDONOUGHBOUNDING FORWARD Garnett stepped up his effort in Game 5, contributing 18 points, 10 rebounds and five steals. PHOTOPhotograph by JOHN W. MCDONOUGHLONE SHOOTER Bryant, who had 38 points in Game 5, enjoyed none of the support Pierce got from Davis (11) and Robinson. PHOTOBOB ROSATO[See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)